Las Vegas Philharmonic Lands a Silver Star

New music director Donato Cabrera brings Nevada roots and a big-city resume


There was an atmosphere of delight—with a hint of relief—inside the Las Vegas Country Club Monday as Las Vegas Philharmonic supporters gave a standing ovation to the orchestra’s newly-chosen music director, Donato Cabrera. After a two-year search, the young regional orchestra had not only landed a leader with strong ties to Nevada, but an up-and-comer who’s spent the last few years as resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, working under its internationally renowned director Michael Tilson Thomas.

Cabrera, who spent part of his childhood in Las Vegas before moving to Reno at the age of 10 and later attending UNR, seemed equally thrilled to be returning to lead an orchestra he described as having “a willingness to explore new things, to roll with the punches.” Both he and the Phil’s musicians got a chance to test that relationship in January, when Cabrera served as guest conductor for a concert celebrating Nevada’s sesquicentennial.

“The energy of that performance was palpable to the musicians on stage as well as to the audience,” said orchestra committee chair and oboist Stephen Caplan, who helped lead the search.

Cabrera, who serves as music director of Wisconsin’s Green Bay Symphony in addition to his San Francisco gig, demurred about whether he’d relocate to Las Vegas. The multiple, far-flung appointments are common in the classical music world, though they can sometimes cause friction; former Philharmonic director David Itkin simultaneously led orchestras in Texas and Arkansas, and Philharmonic CEO Jeri Crawford made a point of saying the search committee had sought a candidate who would be “accessible and available.”

On the flip side, the professional relationships Cabrera has honed elsewhere could help draw marquee performers—like opera star Deborah Voigt, who will headline the Philharmonic’s 2014-2015 season opening concert on September 27.

“For a regional orchestra to have someone who can attract that kind of talent is amazing,” said Jennifer Scott, who served as communications manager for the Philharmonic during the search before leaving to represent Spoleto Festival USA. “People want to go in and grow an organization and be part of it. He picked up pretty smartly that there’s a lot of potential in Vegas.”

The rest of the 2014-2015 program, also announced Monday, shows evidence of Cabrera’s interest in American composers and in making classical music accessible to contemporary audiences. The Masterworks Series Finale features John Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” paired with works by Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky, while a Boston Pops-style Symphonic Spectacular will offer an array of short classical pieces that will be familiar to casual listeners. A fall concert, Aloha From Las Vegas, will draw on traditional Hawaiian music to showcase our city’s connection to the islands. There’s also plenty for serious classical music fans, including the Las Vegas Philharmonic premiere of Mendelssohn’s “Symphony No. 4” and a program of works by German composers—Weber, Beethoven and Brahms.

Philharmonic ticket sales grew after the orchestra moved to The Smith Center last season, and held steady this season, according to the organization. The orchestra’s leaders clearly hope that having a permanent conductor with significant credentials will again boost audience enthusiasm for classical music.

“In the midst of a noisy casino culture…we promote the value of sitting quietly and listening to beautiful sounds,” Caplan said at Monday’s press conference.

Added Cabrera, “Las Vegas needs to grow up in a way that it can celebrate what it has to offer its community. And that can happen in no better way than with the arts.”

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